Monday, May 19, 2008

Talented student artist could be deported (Miami Herald)

Meynardo Garcia's artwork has won awards, but the Coconut Creek student may be deported.

Posted on Sun, May. 18, 2008

Meynardo Garcia's ambitious dreams of becoming an artist are on hold, while he fights the U.S. government over his mother's decision years ago to break the law.

His mother slipped Meynardo, then age 10, into the United States illegally from Mexico. He's now 18 years old, a senior at Broward's Coconut Creek High School.

Meynardo's saga as an undocumented immigrant would have largely gone unnoticed but for his art teacher, his fellow classmates and his prize-winning artwork.

Nearly 1,000 classmates have signed a petition to allow Meynardo to stay in the country and his art teacher has gotten him an attorney to represent him in his legal battle.

Last month, he won first place in the Holocaust Documentation and Education Center's student art competition, beating out 500 other nationwide contestants.

He produced intricate artwork on a poster board with an airbrush, a technique Meynardo taught himself. It depicts a somber group of Latino boys surrounded by barbed wires and includes words written in Hebrew.

''When I studied about the Holocaust, it reminded me of kids in my neighborhood,'' Meynardo said. ``Those kids didn't have freedom and the kids in Mexico don't either.''

He wasn't able to claim the $250 prize because he doesn't have a social security number.

''He has an innate sense of what a composition needs,'' said his art teacher, Jacqueline Sacs. ``In 2007, he didn't know what the Holocaust was but wanted to participate in the contest. His piece awakened a passion for him about children.''

She hopes his artistic ability will somehow help persuade an immigration judge to allow him to stay.

His interest in art began in high school when he started sketching classmates and participating in art competitions, winning most of them.

Today, he attends school all day and then goes to night school to catch up on credits in order to graduate this summer. He wants to attend college in New York to hone his art skills.

Inspired by such artists as Diego Rivera, Vincent van Gogh and Pablo Picasso, Meynardo eventually wants to open art studios for children around the world to give them the chance to express themselves.

''I want to give children -- especially in Mexico -- what I couldn't have,'' he said. ``Having a place to paint could give them a chance to become something in life.''

Meynardo's immigration quandary is similar to what faces an estimated 65,000 students who graduate each year from U.S. high schools as undocumented immigrants. At least 5,000 live in Florida.

Immigration advocates, who argue that these children are being punished for the wrongs of their parents, have spent years unsuccessfully lobbying Congress to approve the Dream Act. If passed, the bill would grant legal residency to those going to college or joining the military.

''The reality is most of these kids may not even remember their home country,'' said Deborah Lee, staff attorney with the Florida Immigration Advocacy Center. ``They feel more aligned to this country because they are growing and changing here. Emotionally, they are connected.''

Meynardo's story is a modern-day version of John Steinbeck's classic novel The Grapes of Wrath -- with a Mexican twist.

It begins in his hometown of Oaxaca, a city in southern Mexico, one of the country's poorest regions. His father abandoned the family in 1994, when Meynardo was just four years old. Three years later, his mother and her boyfriend left for the United States to pick crops in California, leaving behind the young boy with other relatives. In 2000, she paid a smuggler to sneak him into the United States.

''We had no choice but to come here and make a living,'' Meynardo said.

Today, Meynardo lives in a small home in a poor area of North Lauderdale with his mother, her boyfriend and their two U.S.-born children. Neither the mother or her boyfriend are legal U.S. residents.

His estranged father, who reportedly lives somewhere in South Florida, obtained his U.S. residency or green card but has had no contact with his son in years.

Meynardo went undetected by U.S. immigration authorities until last August when police stopped him and his friend in their car at a security checkpoint in the Port of Miami. Unable to produce any identification, police contacted U.S. immigration agents who questioned him in a local motel for three days. He was sent to a detention center in New York; his friend was deported.

It's unclear why he was sent to New York, but he remained there for 21 days as U.S. authorities prepared to deport him.

''I thought it was the end of the road for my dreams,'' Meynardo said. ``I grew up here. I belong here. My dreams are possible only here.''

A relative called Meynardo's art teacher and asked her to write and fax a letter to immigration authorities. Days later, he was released from custody in New York and reunited with his family in South Florida.

His immigration status remains far from certain. At a recent court hearing, an immigration judge granted Meynardo a continuance until Sept. 18.

U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement officials won't comment on cases because of privacy laws.

Under immigration rules, only an employer or family member can petition on behalf of a foreigner seeking permanent residency.

But with his estranged father unwilling to petition for him, Meynardo's options to obtain U.S. residency are slim, explained Miami immigration attorney Jorge Rivera, who represents the teen pro-bono.

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